Prime Minister Scott Morrison has quashed a suggestion from Defence Minister Peter Dutton that the military could be brought in to alleviate the deadly COVID crisis in aged care.
Mr Morrison conceded on Friday the sector – with nearly 600 deaths since mid-December – is in crisis, but has again ruled out bringing in Defence personnel to help.
“You heard me say crisis. And for many Australians, that is how it feels,” he said.
Mr Dutton said on Friday there was no limit to what the government was willing to spend to improve the situation – but Australians needed to face the realities of the virulent Omicron variant.
“You can’t argue on the one hand that people feel isolated and you want to allow loved ones in, which is the natural reaction, but then say, ‘We’re surprised when Omicron is introduced into aged-care facilities’,” he told the Nine Network.
“It’s a witches’ brew. We need to face the realities of Omicron, the way in which it targets older people and the way in which we want older people in aged-care facilities to see their loved ones and grandkids.”
He said on Friday that “of course” the government had to consider the option of using Australian Defence Force personnel in the struggling sector.
“If that’s what’s required, that’s what we will do,” he said.
But Mr Morrison was less than supportive later in the day, saying there were no simple answers to the challenges in aged care.
“The defence forces are not a shadow workforce for the aged-care sector. We have some 60,000 members in our defence force, half of those are in the reserves. To the extent that they work in the health sector, they are already working in the health sector,” he said.
It was the same line he used in mid-January to rebuff a call from former NSW premier Mike Baird to bring ADF personnel into aged care.
“They could help cleaning, bed-making and cooking,” Mr Baird, now the CEO of Hammondcare, said.
“The exhaustion of the sector and lack of resources means this is an option.”
Earlier, former federal treasurer Wayne Swan said the government’s handling of COVID outbreaks in aged-care facilities amounted to “lethal incompetence”.
The national Labor president backed calls for Aged Care Services Minister Richard Colbeck to be sacked and for the federal government to better protect the vulnerable residents.
“This just churns the stomach because there is lethal incompetence here,” he told the Nine Network.
“We need an acknowledgement from the government that this crisis exists and real action will be taken.”
The federal government has announced a taskforce will look into aged care deaths – more than 560 COVID-19 deaths since the start of the Omicron wave less than two months ago – to gather more details.
Queensland Deputy Premier Steven Miles also lashed the federal government, after confirming the deaths of 13 more people in his state – including nine in aged care.
Of the 240 people who have died in Queensland since December 13, 127 were aged-care residents.
“It shouldn’t have come to this,” Mr Miles said on Friday.
“They [aged-care residents] should have all been boosted.
“If they were boosted we wouldn’t be experiencing nearly the level of deaths that we are.
“There is no explanation for why so many people in aged care are double vaccinated but not boosted when the Prime Minister said they would be.”
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt confirmed on Thursday that 35,000 of the country’s approximately 190,000 aged-care residents were still awaiting boosters.
Also on Friday, deputy Labor leader Richard Marles said there was an enormous amount of distress and anger from Australians about how their loved ones in residential facilities were being treated.
“We’ve got a situation now where one in four shifts aren’t being filled by those working in aged care because they’re not in a position to do that. I just find that so distressing,” he told Nine.
“Does that mean people are left in their rooms? Does that mean people are not being bathed?”
Mr Marles said it was “heartbreaking” and the federal government wasn’t focusing on what needed to be done.
“The one thing that you hope is that when you’ve got a loved one in aged care, they’re being looked after in their most vulnerable moment and what we’re seeing here is that that’s just not happening,” he said.
Senator Colbeck has denied the sector is in crisis, insisting it is performing extremely well considering the circumstances.
Labor has called for him to be sacked after it was revealed he went to the Ashes cricket in Hobart instead of appearing before a parliamentary COVID committee.
Senator Colbeck has defended his actions, saying he was balancing his portfolios, which includes sports, and continued to take meetings relating to aged care.
Australia’s COVID deaths rose again on Friday, with 31 in NSW and 36 in Victoria. They were among 10,698 and 11,240 new infections in the states respectively.
There were about 1300 cases in South Australia, and three deaths.
Tasmania had 570 cases and the Northern Territory 1004. Neither had any more fatalities.